When Iggy Pop invited adoring fans to rush the stage during his performance at the Sydney Opera House in 2019, something religious happened. As a photographer snapped what went on to become an international-award-winning photograph, a young woman reached out to touch Iggy’s time- and life-ravaged belly. The caption of that shot? Mark 5:28: “If I could just touch his clothes I will be healed.” A rock god made flesh, captured by a digital image.
In this age of social distancing, we all keep a safe distance from people, so there is something confronting about that visceral image, something transgressive. Yet there is something transcendent too, something “gospel” about it, as the photographer clearly realized when he captioned it.
It’s ironic that in this most secular of ages, publicly at least, the desire for the transcendent, the desire for a good news that looses us from the surly bonds of our mundane lives, continues unabated. Faced with the poker-faced, dispassionate reality that there is nothing beyond what we can see and touch, people still want something more. They want a gospel, even if it is of their own making. Nihilism, it would seem, has had its day.
All of which tells us that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not land in neutral territory. Everything we’re consuming aurally and visually is infused with good news messages that would win our loves and either direct us towards God or towards something or someone else.
Having spent all her money on surgeons who could not do what she needed, that woman in Mark 5 threw all her hopes on the One who had created her in the first place. And it was there that she found not just healing, but peace and salvation.And as it stands in our late modern age, there are innumerable false gods on offer to be directed towards: gods of autonomy, self-determinism and wish-fulfilment. And Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and the like pump billions into their missionary endeavors to provide these gospels for us.
How can the good news of Jesus Christ compete with the good news of Silicon Valley? How, especially, can it compete when the gospel message is under so much suspicion for having failed today’s generation politically, socially, and culturally? Can it reclaim a hearing in the post-Trump era, given how many evangelicals so tightly tied their hopes to political power? How can the sexual ethic—given in the Law, affirmed by Jesus, and confirmed by the Apostles for the church community—compete today, especially in the face of that most alluring of other gospels, the good news of sexual autonomy and self-determining gender identity?
Make no mistake, the modern good news, in which I am almost religiously bound to massage and manipulate my physicality in search of autonomy and fulfilment, has millions of adherents. And since the so called Moral Majority was neither of its descriptors, this good news of sexual autonomy and self-curation doesn’t mind swiping a few more from the church just for good measure on the way out. Think of those such as Josh Harris, who, upon leaving orthodoxy behind, now sing an old song but with a new emphasis: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Yet there’s a chink in this modern gospel armor. Rewind just a few years to that same Sydney Opera House, to another gig. Bon Iver and The Staves sing an a cappella version of “Heavenly Father” that threatens to rend the heavens and truly touch the transcendent. It’s achingly beautiful. Go to Youtube and watch. With his ability to write lyrics that expose the human condition, and a voice that soars, yet feels broken too, Justin Vernon constantly reveals that there is more going on than we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. Iggy Pop may sing “Lust for Life,” but Vernon’s works hint at—how shall we put it?—a “lust” for eternal life.
And the ache which that transcendent desire emits indicates that these other earthbound gospels, especially this alluring gospel of sexual autonomy, can give us almost everything we could desire. Almost.
For “almost” is the key word. That’s the chink in the armor. The gospel of this “sexular age” has a design flaw that cannot be overcome. It’s just too earthbound for its own good, especially for humans who were built to soar.
In my new book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, I posit that the heat generated in the conversation (if it can any longer be defined by a word so civil) around sex and gender is perfectly understandable when we realize that both gospels are aiming for transcendence and liberty, yet each views the other as the problem to which their gospel is the solution. It’s a clash of gospels, and the friction between the two is heating up.
And it’s only going to get hotter. Churches that hold to a biblically orthodox understanding of sexuality face accusations of promoting “bad news.” Those who eschew a revisionist view of Scripture around the issue of sex will be viewed as the “do-badders” and no longer the “do-gooders.” Not only in the public square either. While the USA is still in catch-up mode, in countries such as the UK and Australia, even privately funded religious education systems are facing pressure to refute their codes of orthodox sexual ethics upon pain of being defunded.
And, of course, recent sexual scandals involving evangelicals, plus the often shameful marriage of right-wing politics with evangelicalism, mean that many orthodox Christians in their workplaces or their educational institutions have little cash in the bank to draw from when they seek a hearing as to why they don’t celebrate Pride Day, or when they fail to adhere to the company’s social policies to promote diverse sexual expression.
It doesn’t take voting for Trump or calling for a wall to be built to be seen as the bad guy in today’s modern setting. As my fellow Australian Mark Sayers puts it so presciently,
You can reach levels of blistering hipness, gain position within a key industry, hold an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture, throw yourself into the great justice causes of the day, and still your belief in the second culture values of faith will see you viewed as beyond the pale.
By “second culture” Sayers is referring to Judeo-Christian culture, as opposed to “third culture” of our increasingly post-Christian experience. And he specifically means beliefs around the exclusivity of Jesus and, of course, orthodox biblical views around sex.
Yet remember that word “almost.” The thing about revolutions is that they almost attain utopia. Almost. History has proven they constantly fall short, constantly break just a few too many eggs along the way. And the same is true for the sexual revolution, this sexular age in which we live. Yet that won’t stop revolutionaries from trying.
For all of the desire for autonomy and individual rights, two of our most pressing concerns in modern life are anxiety and loneliness. There is a sheer confusion and dismay among many of those who were promised everything by this new gospel but have found it to have delivered little.
Or in other words “almost” enough, but not quite. Anxiety isn’t as much a problem when life has fallen apart. You’d expect that. Anxiety is a problem when life is almost okay, but you still sense something is wrong. The sexular age is promising a transcendence it cannot ultimately offer, because what our bodies long for is not reconstruction, but resurrection.
In other words, we can spend all our money on surgeons in this age of plastic identity, moulding, sculpting, and carving, but we need an inner work done on us that no surgeon can do.
Which brings us back to Iggy Pop and Jesus. Having spent all her money on surgeons who could not do what she needed, that woman in Mark 5 threw all her hopes on the One who had created her in the first place. And it was there that she found not just healing, but peace and salvation.
We’re still in a “watch this space” moment when it comes to how far the sexular tsunami will travel inland, but even now the bodies are starting to wash up on our shores. The church can be a place of refuge, hope, and, yes, good news to those who find that the gospel of sexual identity doesn’t go deep enough to heal them. Let’s just make sure that when that happens our good news isn’t merely a churchy version of what this earthbound culture is already offering.